Saturday, January 28, 2006

Flaw in the Argument

Silly me. I made a rookie mistake in my argument that Bush's advisors have no reason to fear disclosure of their advice to the president.

After sleeping on it, I realized my error. I assumed that standing up for the truth is more admirable than self-dealing and intellectual dishonesty. But to kinda paraphrase the president, that's just not the way it works.

Agin It Before He Was Fer It

The Carpetbagger reminds us that Bush's latest plan for dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions is the one he and Condi Rice ridiculed when John Kerry proposed it during the 2004 campaign.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Yikes! I've Been Exposed for Telling the Truth!

If people give me advice and they're forced to disclose that advice, it means the next time an issue comes up I might not be able to get unvarnished advice from my advisers. And that's just the way it works."
—Pres. George W. Bush, White House News Conference, Jan. 26, 2006

That's not the way it works. As we've written again and again, the problem in the Bush White House is not whether he receives unvarnished advice. It's whether he listens to anyone whose advice violates his narrow world view.

Assume that by "unvarnished advice," he means counsel that is blunt and without any decoration applied to obscure the truth. Now let's consider the possible scenarios implied by his statement. (I didn't include scenarios in which the outcomes are ambiguous because I think extremes are more likely to test Bush's statement.)

1. I give the President truthful advice. He follows it. We achieve an outcome that is good for the country.
2. I give the President truthful advice. He disregards it. We still achieve the desired outcome.
3. I give the President truthful advice. He disregards it. We have a disaster on our hands.
4. I give the President truthful advice. He follows it. We have a disaster on our hands.

Under which scenarios would I be discouraged from being truthful in the future?

1. Praise all around. Glad to have the credit if my advice comes out.
2. Good for the president, because it shows him as being able to sort through conflicting advice and still able to make a decision that's good for the country. My reputation should survive because I told the truth. I'd be more worried about whether the president will listen to me next time, and that has nothing to do with public disclosure.
3. This is problematical because it makes the president look bad. I would rightly not want my advice disclosed for that reason, perhaps. I would personally come out looking good, and that might make me a leak suspect. Still, I'd be even more resolved to tell the truth the next time.
4. This is actually the Iraq scenario, as spun by the administration. In a disaster, the best defense is to say, I listened to what we believed to be the truth but it turned out to be wrong or incomplete. Under this scenario, the truth tellers might come in for criticism, and it is possible my future advice will be more nuanced or ambiguous. It may also be more carefully researched.

To recap, three scenarios for the truth-telling advisor look positive to me. The fourth, while painful, isn't an argument against giving the president unvarnished advice in the future. It's an argument for being more rigorous in my analysis.

Now, let's assume I am already not giving the president unvarnished advice. Instead, I am feeding him what he wants to hear or what a narrow, self-interested group wants him to hear. Guided by ideology, I am ignoring or minimizing important facts. Let's call this self-serving advice.

A. I give the President self-serving advice. He follows it. We achieve an outcome that is good for the country.
B. I give the President self-serving advice. He disregards it. We still achieve the desired outcome.
C. I give the President self-serving advice. He disregards it. We have a disaster on our hands.
D. I give the President self-serving advice. He follows it. We have a disaster on our hands.

Are there scenarios under which exposure of my self-serving may cause a problem?

A. No problem here. We just proclaim ideology and self-dealing as the way the solve the country's problems.
B. The president looks good here, but I look bad. If I am not fired and am capable of changing my ways, I might consider giving truthful advice in the future.
C. We'd all agree that to disclose details of internal meetings would compound the damage to the country.
D. Ditto.

Looks to me like disclosure is unlikely to make honest, straight-forward advisers clam up. But bad outcomes coupled with self-serving advice could be lethal. Which is really where the president needs protection — from pesky disclosure about Iraq, outed CIA agents, Hurricane Katrina, rendition and torture policy, warrantless monitoring, meetings with indicted fund raisers or energy policy meetings that only include oil companies,

But you probably already knew that.

A Thousand Warts

I've expended a lot of words on the not-tax-and-spend policies of the Republican-dominated federal government, but here I'm adding just a couple colored boxes. This picture is worth a thousand warts.

The lines that go up: good. The lines that go down: bad.

Oprah's Rapture

Photo: George Burns/Associated Press
[Note: This post is by Gustave. My latest post obliterated his credit. — CQ]
My wife, like millions of other women, likes to watch Oprah. We had an engagement after I got home from work, so she taped yesterday's show (on good ol' fashioned VHS) and we watched it together after putting our kid to bed. Yesterday's feature: a public flogging.

"Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of [Oprah]." Ephesians 5:6 (except for last word)

As Charlie discussed previously, James Frey lied in his book "A Million Little Pieces." After viewing the show, I grabbed a few of the magazine articles I've written in the last year to see if I—perhaps subconsciously—was guilty of the same embellishments for the sake of good storytelling. Nope, the events happened when, where, and how I told them. I suppose someone could dispute whether Lake Superior's waters really looked like liquid mercury on a blustery November day, but that's not akin to Frey’s exaggeration of his jail time: his book says three months, now he says a few hours.

Still, I'm not as incensed at the fudging and fictionalization in his book (which I admittedly have not read—I'm currently re-reading a Rick Bass book of essays about art and activism, and I'm not in the mood for drug addiction) as Oprah and her gaggle of self-righteous journalism experts were yesterday.

Perhaps it's because, for starters, I think the third-person, omniscient tone I was taught in journalism school is fraught with inaccuracies anyway. I prefer first-person narratives, because I believe it’s more truthful to tell readers “this is how I perceived things to be" rather than "this is absolutely, positively, how they were." If you've ever been at a dinner party, and you're telling a story, and then your spouse interrupts you several times to correct you along the way, then you know what I'm talking about.

Again, does this excuse Frey's fabrications? Nope, but it does mean that—contrary to the Poynter Institute stiff who denied that there exists a spectrum of facts—there are varying degrees of truth, all susceptible to the vagaries of human perception.

As for Frey’s style of storytelling, I find this passage from a interview with William Least Heat-Moon to be relevant:

Interviewer: Is there any room for fudging with the facts, whether chronological or otherwise, in travel writing?

Least Heat-Moon: Are we going to call it nonfiction?

Interviewer: Yes.

Least Heat-Moon: Then, according to my ethics, no -- unless the reader knows what you're doing. I contend that in the kind of nonfiction I write, and that other people also pursue, anything is permissible provided the reader knows what you're taking liberties with. In "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," for instance, the reader arrives at the last page of the book to discover that some of the characters were invented by the author. I think it's all right to do that, but you have to put it on the first page of the book -- not the last.

Maybe Frey could have been pardoned for his embellishments had he or his publisher put a disclaimer on the front of his book. It seems to me that being guilty of not admitting to your literary device is a bit different from being publicly gutted because you’re a “liar.”

Maybe we’re getting too caught up in actual truths versus “essential truths” (as Oprah stated in her phone call to Larry King, which I respected). Again, I haven’t read Frey’s book, so I can’t speak to how readers of his book feel after learning the truth. But I know that after reading William Least Heat-Moon’s “Blue Highways”—where every diner waitress, bar drunk, and road tramp talks like a philosopher—I had some questions about whether the actual characters said the actual words attributed to them. But you know what? I didn’t care. Because it was a story well told. And because there was a bigger truth behind the book, and behind the author’s tale of self-discovery.

Did Frey deserve the vengeful wrath of Oprah and her bonafide experts (not one dissenter among them, by the way...seems a bit like stacking the jury)? It seemed to me an exercise of power—a flexing of her media muscles on a guy who’s on very vulnerable and shaky footing. A more benevolent god might have opted for absolution.

And it’s a little too convenient that news of Oprah’s confrontation with Frey was on the Web yesterday morning, which caused me to mention it to my wife, which caused us to tune in to the show. I wonder how Oprah’s ratings were yesterday. I wonder how her advertisers feel about Oprah taking a stand for the truth. Maybe I’m the one who feels duped.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

History Majors Need Not Apply

(via Truthout)Sidney Blumenthal writes in that:

[Prior to invading Iraq] elder statesmen of the foreign policy establishment and the Republican Party repeatedly warned President Bush to his face of precisely the consequences of his planned actions. Former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and former Secretaries of State James Baker and Lawrence Eagleburger, among others, "never thought the war would come off right," one of those who spoke to Bush told me. "We all felt that strongly. It was going to end with an Islamic republic dominated by Shia and influenced by Iran. There was no question they would have Iranian connections. If you know history, you don't have to be a genius." But Bush would not listen. "It's a sad story."

And Bush surrounds himself with team players who also will not listen... except, perhaps, to international phone calls.

Hope for Harsh Places

I’m freshly back from the Mountain West where the struggle over values and conflicting freedoms tends to play out across the landscape rather than in the bedroom.

Each afternoon I hiked through a rugged wedge of public land just north of Colorado National Monument. One day I meet two trail runners and watch a mountain biker snake along another path I’d explored in solitude the day before. Another time, I encounter only a dog with his couple trotting behind. There are bike tracks in the wisps of snow that cling in the shade, but I doubt I’ll ever find the stamina or the nerve to ride in these high places.

It is sunny and pleasant, mountain freezing — a temperature in the low 30s that feels like 60.

Up on Eagle’s Nest, I can see our new house taking shape a thousand feet below. It’s a 12-minute bike ride to the center of town, but houses are sparse here. Nothing but an arroyo stands between us and the harsh, arid lands of Bang’s Canyon and the Monument.

So far.

This week the local paper showed a homeowner standing on the deck of his under-construction dream home, overlooking an area where about 100 new oil and gas wells, a pipeline and a compressor station are planned for 2006. More public land in the area is scheduled to be opened for oil and gas development in a February through a federal lease sale, which could add hundreds of more wells to the resort area.

A couple hundred more miles to the east, people in the historic mountain town of Idaho Springs may find themselves squeezed out by a widened Interstate 70. The highway and its Eisenhower Tunnel have dramatically shortened the trip from Denver to Grand Junction, but they've also stimulated the development of faux towns like Vail and their conversion from resorts to year-round bedroom communities for Denver commuters.

As our president just reminded us, we used to think the oceans would keep our country safe from foreign enemies. Before long, we'll have to give up thinking we can always move farther out. We try to get away from it all, and we just bring it all with us — Lowes, Wal-Mart, Circuit City and Chick-fil-A following our cars like tin cans tied to a newlywed's tailpipe.

There is almost no such thing any more as local color, and the few human-built environments that still qualify are ringed by identical wastelands. Only nature still has enough power to truly distinguish a place, and it, too, is losing out at the fringes. Grasslands once plowed to farmland can be just as easily dozened into cookie cutter malls and industrial parks. Woodlands get trimmed back into amenities that give name to McMansion subdivisions. Lakes become too valuable to leave to the ma and pa resorts, and ocean waves can't beat back the beachfront highrises and casinos forever.

There is still hope for harsh places. They don't take easily to civilization, but as an acquired taste, they naturally attract those who like to own things other people don't have.

Up here, actors, fashion designers and media moguls buy up the old ranches and create their own fantasy lands, but

The fierce escalation of land values they trigger drives real ranchers out of business and prevents working families from ever owning their own home.

Meanwhile, the nostalgia ranchers take advantage of agricultural tax breaks designed to help real ranchers survive.

Westerners now must live with, in the language of real estate ads, "unique lifestyles" of "quiet luxury," which workers can't afford any more than they can afford the $740 cowboy hats in Telluride's "Bounty Hunter" shop.
San Juan Suburbia, Bruce Finley, Denver Post

What a choice. Designer ranch vistas with picturesque tipi tableaus, drilling sites with throbbing compressors or mall sprawl. I'm building a tasteful, energy efficient, low-impact house in country where my roots go back for generations, but I look around and wonder if I'm still part of the problem.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Abramoff-related Monies?

WCCO reporter Pat Kessler coins "Abramoff-related monies" to tie Indian tribe donations to Democrats into the Republican lobbyist's sleaze. Cleversponge breaks it down nicely and shows that local political reporting on the Jack Abramoff story is just as lazy and unbalanced as Republicans could ask for.

How to Write-Off Your Pay-Offs

The trouble with blogging in Minnesota is we have to go out-of-state for the really good examples of greed, corruption and hubris.

Thank goodness for guys like Richard Scrushy, the HealthSouth CEO who got off from charges of manipulating corporate earnings.

Scrushy's PR blitz was transparent at the time, and now there are new revelations of his payments to influence the local black religious leaders — and thereby the predominantly black Christian jury pool. BusinessWeek Online has the best summary of allegations that Scrushy funneled money to a writer, Audry Lewis, and a local PR firm affiliated by family ownership with Birmingham's black newpaper —— in addition to making donations to local churches that seemed timed to turn the ministers out to sit in courtroom during his trial:

In 2003, Internal Revenue Service records show that Scrushy's charitable foundation gave Guiding Light $1 million. The next year, as his trial date approached, the records show that the foundation donated more than $700,000 to religious groups, some of whose leaders joined the courthouse Amen Corner. The foundation's 2005 IRS records are not yet available.

Scrushy, of course, denies there was any connection between his tax-deductible donations to the churches and their pastors showing up in his defense. He even went so far as to record his conversations with the writer and her minister who now say Scrushy has reneged on $150,000 in payments for their PR work. This is curious, given that one of Scrushy's HealthSouth staff tried to get him on tape when he raised his concerns with Scrushy that earnings statements were being falsified.

On the tapes provided to the Associated Press, Scrushy repeatedly tells Henderson the two had no contract for money. (BusinessWeek says the tapes were muffled and inconclusive.) It looks like Scrushy was carefully ambiguous except when he knew he was on tape.

In addition to the Lewis Group PR firm, Scrushy hired a Colorado PR guy, Charlie Russell, who specializes in corporate train wrecks. According to the Denver Post, Russell was "introduced to Scrushy by former Cherry Creek financial adviser Will Hoover, who was convicted in 2004 in a $13 million fraud case and sentenced to 100 years in prison." While Hoover was free on bail, he started a company called Executive Recovery Partners, presumably offering his personal expertise to help other swindlers with expert witnesses, public relations and psychological counseling.

Russell paid Audry Lewis $2,500 during the trial, but took care to have a contract calling it advance payment for possible work after the verdict. He said he gave Audry Lewis money so she could go to the funeral of a Detroit relative — a classic kindhearted gesture familiar to alumni football boosters everywhere.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Well, He Was Asking For It

Janinsanfran notes that Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the latest Axis of Evil leader being groomed as a madman, really didn't say that Iran has the right to build nuclear weapons. We all heard the first Ahmadinejad quote, but how many heard about the correction?

CNN has admitted a mistranslation of the leader's remarks: "In fact, he said that Iran has the right to nuclear energy. He added that 'a nation that has civilization does not need nuclear weapons and our nation does not need them.'"

Bradblog found CNN also has had trouble keeping Iranian and Korean nuclear facilities straight. The real question is whether Bush & Co. can keep this bit of WMD intelligence straight — and out of the yellowcake column.

A year ago, I wrote about Graham Allison's book, Nuclear Terrorism, which argues that our antiterror policy has lost sight of the original and achievable goal of preventing further catastrophic terror attacks on U.S. soil. He says the most workable strategy is to denying access to nuclear weapons, secure nuclear material that could be used in making bombs, and not adding any new nuclear weapons states.

I'm not crazy about nuclear anything in Iran because I'm not sure this regime — or any other they're likely to come up with — can be trusted not to try to develop weapons or to deal with terrorists. But please, let's focus on controling the material and not let mistrust, misunderstanding and mistranslation get us into another dumb ass military conflict.

Now You Tell Us!

Six former heads of the Environmental Protection Agency showed up to celebrate the EPA's 35th year on Wednesday. All of them — five Republicans and one Democrat — agreed the Bush administration is neglecting global warming and other environmental problems.

Search no further for evidence of the sinking state of environmental protection in the U.S.

This was an EPA-sponsored event. There have only been nine prior EPA administrators appointed. One is currently Bush's Health and Human Services Secretary; one appointed by Pres. Carter didn't attend; and one is dead. They're essentially unanimous in condemning the leadership coming from the top.

Watch... the environment is so low on our leader's priority list, this won't make him made enough to get even with the organizers.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Letting Go of Pieces

One thing I re-learned in the Family Program at Hazelden was the necessity of letting go of things I can't control. Especially the behavior of an addict.

Reading James Frey's A Million Little Pieces made it tough to just let it go, because the book seemed so fraudulent and even harmful.

It wasn't just his self-portrait — I am so fucking bad and so fucking tough and so fucking fucked up and irredeemable and wounded and being the most stubborn and intelligent and desirable and totally fucked worst addict ever in detox who only cares about the truth and not this God bullshit and is the only one who can save myself such a lost fucking cause and even though the odds are a million to one still I will try. Will. Try. Alone. — but also, his portrait of recovery.

I can't speak for what Frey truly experienced, but he made up more than his criminal record. This new spokesperson for sobriety clearly wasted his time at Hazelden, refusing to listen, ridiculing what he did hear, and supposedly subverting every rule and protocol of treatment. He came out less intoxicated by substances, but still intoxicated with himself. (Page 394, for example, boasts 62 "I"s and 14 other first person pronouns.)

I'm not supposed to be judgmental, either.

Working the 12 Steps has helped, but it's thanks to Heather King, a memoirist and Hazelden alum, that I no longer feel the obligation to speak out or detail my long list of the inventions and contradictions and inanities in the book. Her piece in Publisher's Weekly does the job:

Drama is the movement from narcissism to humility, but Frey is exactly the same at the end of his story—minus the drugs—as he is at the beginning: an insecure braggart without a spark of vitality, gratitude or fun. "A ballsy, bone-deep memoir," called it, but for any alcoholic worth his or her salt, throwing up blood, puking on oneself, and committing petty-ass crimes in and of themselves couldn't be bigger yawns. What's gritty is the moment, knowing you're dying, when the world turns on its axis and you realize My way doesn't work. What's ballsy isn't just egomaniacally recounting your misdeeds; it's taking the trouble to find the people you've screwed over, looking them in the eye, and saying you're sorry. What's bone-deep—or might have been if Frey had done it—is figuring out that other people suffer, too, and developing some compassion for them. Oprah speaks of "the redemption of James Frey"—but redeemed from what, and by whom? Sobriety, in my experience, isn't the staged melodrama of sitting in a bar and staring down a drink to prove you've "won"—as Frey does upon leaving rehab. It's the ongoing attempt, knowing in advance you'll fall woefully short, to order your life around honesty, integrity, faith.

So, in fact, is writing. It's every writer's sacred honor to "get it right," but perhaps the burden falls heaviest on the memoirist. As a memoirist, it seems to me, something has to have happened to you that you're burning to tell. You've undergone some kind of transformation that matters not because it says something about you, but because it says something about the world; because it touches on the mysteries of suffering and meaning.

(via and the family buick)

Why Alito's Nomination is Not About Abortion

In "Bush Has Crossed the Rubicon," Paul Craig Roberts writes lucidly about why Alito's nomination truly matters.

Despite seven decades of an imperial presidency that has risen from the New Deal’s breach of the separation of powers, Republican attorneys, who constitute the membership of the quarter-century-old Federalist Society, the candidate group for Republican nominees to federal judgeships, write tracts about the Imperial Congress and the Imperial Judiciary that are briefs for concentrating more power in the executive. Federalist Society members pretend that Congress and the Judiciary have stolen all the power and run away with it.

The Republican interest in strengthening executive power has its origin in frustration from the constraints placed on Republican administrations by Democratic congresses. The thrust to enlarge the President’s powers predates the Bush administration but is being furthered to a dangerous extent during Bush’s second term. The confirmation of Bush’s nominee, Samuel Alito, a member of the Federalist Society, to the Supreme Court will provide five votes in favor of enlarged presidential powers.

What's really interesting about this is that economist Roberts is not your garden-variety Bush whacker. Among other things, he's a former fellow of the Cato Institute and Reagan Administration Treasury Department staffer.

Pecking Order

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune
What does it take to get to be the white dude helping carry the banner on MLK Day?

Norm Coleman is a US Senator (R) and St. Paul resident, which must trump Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar (slightly obscured at right in the next row), who is a Democratic candidate for Minnesota's other Senate seat.

Showing up and jockeying for a camera position at these bi-partisan events must be very stressful for politicians. Will someone allocate the spots or is it time to sharpen the elbows?

Years ago when Mikhail Gorbachev visited Minnesota, a great group standup routine was broadcast prior to a Governor's reception for the Soviet leader. Gorby's limo was running late — and so was the reporter following him. Meanwhile, a live feed ran from a fixed camera at the Governor's mansion set up to carry the formalities, while voice over was provided from the studio.

As local politicos of both parties arrived, they all gravitated immediately to the camera and tried to look casual. The area had been cleared of furniture, food and people. The men were visibly uncomfortable feigning informality standing in a place at a party that made no sense — unless you needed to stake out a position before the guest of honor arrived.

It was like watching a court full of post players all trying to establish themselves on the block without getting called for a foul.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Are We Safer Today Than in 1814?

Former Senator and VP Al Gore today reminded a Washington D.C. audience at Constitution Hall that Dr. Martin Luther King had once been the subject of illegal, secret surveillance by the government. Its discovery, he said, "helped to convince Congress to enact restrictions on wiretapping" that became the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA), which our present chief executive finds inconvenient.

The founders of our country faced dire threats. If they failed in their endeavors, they would have been hung as traitors. The very existence of our country was at risk.

Yet, in the teeth of those dangers, they insisted on establishing the Bill of Rights.

Is our Congress today in more danger than were their predecessors when the British army was marching on the Capitol? Is the world more dangerous than when we faced an ideological enemy with tens of thousands of missiles poised to be launched against us and annihilate our country at a moment's notice? Is America in more danger now than when we faced worldwide fascism on the march-when our fathers fought and won two World Wars simultaneously?

It is simply an insult to those who came before us and sacrificed so much on our behalf to imply that we have more to be fearful of than they. Yet they faithfully protected our freedoms and now it is up to us to do the same.

Technically, the Bill of Rights came about because opponents of the Constitution as drafted argued it would leave the country vulnerable to violations of civil rights by the central government, just as the British had done.

But the point is taken. Is there really a greater danger today that justifies executive power skirting civil liberties?

Full text of the hour-long speech is here.

Body English and the Body Politic

It's a truism of community activism that you're mistaken if you go into the meeting where a vote will be taken thinking you can change the outcome. That's not necessarily because decision-makers' minds are closed. It's because most of the real opportunities for change have been missed or exhausted.

Smarts sports teams know this, too. A game is not won or lost on the last play. It's the team's fault for letting a football game come down to a 50-yard field goal as the clock runs out.

Observing the commentary and advocacy ads regarding Sam Alito's Supreme Court nomination is like watching fans trying to put body English on that desperation kick as it sails wide-to-the-right of the uprights.

Way too little, much too late.

We can't fault those out-of-shape Senators for running out of gas and fumbling. After all, we put them on the field and kept them there.

We continue to let ourselves get suckered into last-minute battles over nominations and abortion and gay marriage, while the right shovels through its real agenda of low wages, low taxes and low regulation to benefit the richest people in the world. Yes, the Supreme Court is important, but the President and representatives we elect are where the game has to be played — and won.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Gut Reaction

Attack kills 17 near Mosul

Every now and then I read a story with a headline like that and I catch myself. I'm thinking it's 17 of our troops and then discover it's Iraqis. I'm relieved.

Thank goodness it wasn't any of ours.

I don't know the Americans any more than the Iraqis, but I'm relieved.

Then I read this from Baghdad Burning, and I feel ashamed of my gut reaction. (via Sideshow)

Outsource Senate Hearings

This week we watched James Frey adopt the Alito "dissemble with dignity" defense with Larry King, while Sam Alito copped the Frey Plea before the Senate Judiciary Committee: "There's a piece of paper that says I did it, but I have no recollection of it."

The entrenched, self-regarding fossils across the table couldn't crack either of them.

Last summer, in a sudden flush of bipartisanship, I supported a Bush nominee for the Supreme Court. Here's another swerve across the divide — to support outsourcing government services.

Specifically, outsource advising and consenting on Supreme Court nominees to the editors of the Pony Express, the newspaper of Stillwater (MN) High School. The young journalists exposeda registered sex offender who was hanging around their school posing as British Royalty.

I'll bet the kids would've made quick work of Alito's Concerned Alumni of Princeton phantom membership. A man lists only two organizations on the application for the highest profile job in his life and later can't remember belonging to one of them? What kind of school spirit is that?

Friday, January 13, 2006

New Orleans is Reminding Me...

–David Grunfeld, Times-Picayune

Is it too early in the year to nominate photos for the Pulitzer?

Nice Place to Visit, But...

It may be hard for you to see, but from when I first came here to today, New Orleans is reminding me of the city I used to come to visit. It's a heck of a place to bring your family. It's a great place to find some of the greatest food in the world and some wonderful fun. And I'm glad you got your infrastructure back on its feet. I know you're beginning to welcome citizens from all around the country here to New Orleans.
—Pres. Bush

Except maybe for welcoming citizens from New Orleans...

Rude Pundit has already jumped on this one, so read his post, and be sure to visit his 5-part report of photos and interviews from New Orleans that started on January 2nd.

A sobering antidote to these delusional Chamber-of-Commerce-isms.

I have no problem with Bush trying to drum up a little tourist business for a desperate city, but not when he's ignoring what's really behind the scenes.

This is his idea of bold action. Show up and give a speech, as he did back in September.

Within the Gulf region are some of the most beautiful and historic places in America. As all of us saw on television, there's also some deep, persistent poverty in this region, as well. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality. When the streets are rebuilt, there should be many new businesses, including minority-owned businesses, along those streets. When the houses are rebuilt, more families should own, not rent, those houses. When the regional economy revives, local people should be prepared for the jobs being created...

I know that when you sit on the steps of a porch where a home once stood, or sleep on a cot in a crowded shelter, it is hard to imagine a bright future. But that future will come.

He knows. Like all of us, he's seen it on television.

Minnesota Warming

The StarTribune reports that the Twin Cities is enjoying its warmest winter to date. Only one day since December 21 has posted an average daily temperature below the 30-year average — and the cumulative average is 15.9 degrees above normal and 2.4 above the warmest January on record.

Now, Minnesota warming is certainly not proof of global warming, and I like biking in January without shoe covers and a face mask.

But what about hurricane Katrina and the high ferocity and incidence of tropical storms that forced meteorologists to cycle back through the alphabet last year to name them all? A prominent scientist who has been a moderate on the global warming questions says:

My answer is, Not so fast. That may have been a contributor. But the fact we had such a bad season was mostly a matter of chance. On the other hand, though the number of storms globally remained nearly constant, the frequency of Atlantic storms has been rising in concert with tropical ocean temperature, probably because of global warming.

There is no doubt that in the last 20 years, the earth has been warming up. And it's warming up much too fast to ascribe to any natural process we know about.

The scientist is Kerry Emanuel, MIT meteorologist and hurricane specialist, author of Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes. He continues:

I predicted years ago that if you warmed the tropical oceans by a degree Centigrade, you should see something on the order of a 5 percent increase in the wind speed during hurricanes. We've seen a larger increase, more like 10 percent, for an ocean temperature increase of only one-half degree Centigrade.

Still, nothin to worry about. Got no proof that power plants, automobile emissions or brush burnin cause global warm-ing. No smokin gun (heh, heh).

Conservation should be voluntary. That's why they call it conservation. Because it's voluntary. Bible doesn't mention global warm-ing. We should be teaching both sides and not hurting the economy.

Time to go for a bike ride.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

A Million Little Pieces of BS

I find I'm still not done with James Frey after his performance last night on Larry King Live. It was creepy, right down to the similarities between King's studio backdrop and Frey's bookcover.

Frey presented a persona that perhaps was supposed to convey serenity, but he looked near-catatonic as he repeated, with the discipline of a Republican functionary, his evasive reponses to King's puffball questions. And then hauled out his mother to reiterate the talking points.

If King were a real journalist (they still do call his channel CNN) or had even read The Smoking Gun article about how the author of A Million Little Piecesfictionalized his redemptive tale, King would have easily been able to slice through the BS and sidestepping. (He seemed scarcely to be listening, repeating questions and even asking if Frey was an only child after Frey had made references to his brother.) But he let Frey equate percentage of pages in one book with the magnitude of the actual falsehoods he had put forth over his two recovery "memoirs." Had King been up to speed on investigative report, he might have asked actual questions that conveyed its substance.

But that's not what his show is about. It's pillow talk for celebrities needed to do PR repair.

Fortunately for Frey, his stay at Hazelden is cloaked in confidentiality, so that part of his account — the majority of the book, as he kept reminding us — is not subject to the examination accorded his so-called criminal records.

The little drama at the end, with Oprah calling in to express her support, was also pretty transparent. Frey made numerous references to his work with Oprah's producers post his appearance on her show that relaunched his book. King kept asking, Have you heard from Oprah? What does Oprah think?

Does anyone really believe that someone who manages her image so carefully as Winfrey was just sitting home eating Oreos and watching the tube and decided on whim to phone in just before King signed off?

It was all a Frey commercial: Can you believe me now?

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Where Did I Put My Spear?

Ever since the war we have been the battleground of mighty reform movements. Consider the ideals of each group, and contrast them with the practical results...
• Women's suffrage, designed to clean up politics, shot the Ohio Gang into power and presented us with the Teapot Dome.
• Prohibition, enacted to eliminate the drunkard, made dipsomaniacs of our children, festered our cities with speakeasies, sponsored the rise of the most vicious criminal class in the history of the world.
• The schools, successfully raiding the state treasuries upon the assurance that education was the best defense against crime, filled the penitentiaries with their students.
• The great up-surge of luncheon clubs, professing to purify business ethics and to exalt the principle of service, swung into power on a wave of commercial dishonesty unparalleled in any country that ever existed.

I just finished Dalton Trumbo's Eclipse, his first novel, of interest mainly to students of American Realism and residents of Grand Junction, whose history and citizens the story closely follows. But the sentiments of Trumbo's character, created in 1933-34, ring with clarity today. [Punctuation of the quoted passage is mine.]

We gave them their heads — all these fine reformers of morals, business, politics, appetites. They sat firmly in the saddle, riding through a sea of gold... Our self-appointed leaders plunged headlong into a latrine — and, which is worse, they forced us to wallow there with them.

And what happened to the fellow who dared question them? What if a man said, 'I doubt this prosperity', or 'I doubt this morality', or 'I doubt this church', or 'I doubt this government'? He was impaled on a cross, and all the slobbering sensualists they could muster thrust spears in his side. Well... they have taught us a lesson. They have given us a great historical demonstration of the fact that a man cannot believe in anything with his whole heart and his whole soul without becoming an intolerable bigot, and hence a menace to his fellow citizens.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Signing Statements and Alito

If you haven't read about "signing statements" as a way the president winks as he signs legislation, read this story. In his 5 years, he's vetoed no bills but has put spin on the signing at least 500 times.

The roots of Bush's approach go back to the Ford administration, when Dick Cheney, then serving as White House chief of staff, chafed at legislative limits placed on the executive branch in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal and other abuses of power by President Nixon. Now the vice president and his top aide, David Addington, are taking the lead in trying to tip the balance of power away from Congress and back to the president.

They may soon have an ally on the Supreme Court. As a Justice Department lawyer in the Reagan administration, Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito wrote a 1986 memo outlining plans for expanded use of presidential signing statements.

Why bother to veto a bill when you don't plan to follow it anyway?

Monday, January 09, 2006

My Name is James, and I'm a Writer

So why would a man who spends 430 pages chronicling every grimy and repulsive detail of his formerly debased life (and then goes on to talk about it nonstop for 2-1/2 years in interviews with everybody from bloggers to Oprah herself) need to wall off the details of a decade-old arrest?

The Smoking Gun takes apart best-selling memoirist James Frey's A Million Little Pieces and finds it severely wanting in the honest disclosure department. Read the piece (it's long) and if you are one of the few who haven't yet read Frey, you'll have saved some money and perhaps some wasted empathy.

Aspects of Frey's tale have been questioned before, but not to this extent, or with this amount of documentation.

While the book is brimming with improbable characters — like the colorful mafioso Leonard and the tragic crack whore Lilly, with whom Frey takes up in Hazelden — and equally implausible scenes, we chose to focus on the crime and justice aspect of "A Million Little Pieces." Which wasn't much of a decision since almost every character in Frey's book that could address the remaining topics has either committed suicide, been murdered, died of AIDS, been sentenced to life in prison, gone missing, landed in an institution for the criminally insane, or fell off a fishing boat never to be seen again.

While we do not doubt Frey spent time in rehab, there really isn't anyone left (besides the author himself) to vouch for many of the book's outlandish stories.

Frey's latest book, My Friend Leonard, extends the "I am an Alcoholic and I am a drug Addict and I am a Criminal" confessional franchise that made Frey a millionaire.

Addicts, of course, are liars. Writers make things up for a living. Why should anyone be surprised?

When recalling criminal activities, looming prison sentences, and jailhouse rituals, Frey writes with a swaggering machismo and bravado that absolutely crackles. Which is truly impressive considering that, as TSG discovered, he made much of it up. The closest Frey has ever come to a jail cell was the few unshackled hours he once spent in a small Ohio police headquarters waiting for a buddy to post $733 cash bond.

Listening to other addicts tell their stories is a staple of treatment at Hazelden, where Frey spent time. Whether or not he ever spent another hour in AA or read a single text on recovery, he no doubt was treated to a large dose of stories that were far better than his.

And he probably saw the mainstream potential of telling similar stories, using his embellished self as the central character. Why do it for a few dozen guys in lousy AA meeting when he could peddle it as a redemptive memoir? Getting it picked up by Oprah was an unexpected bonus.

"I know that, like many of us who have read this book, I kept turning to the back of the book to remind myself, 'He's alive. He's okay," Winfrey said. In essence, that is part of the book's narrative power and a primary marketing tool. All this terrible stuff actually happened to a guy named James Frey, a former degenerate who survived drug and alcohol addiction, escaped his criminal past, and somehow avoided a relapse in the decade-plus since leaving Hazelden.

Frey was openly scornful of the Twelve Steps approach and holds himself up as an example of an addict who went his own way and made a miraculous recovery. Treatment programs are full of those guys.

His book draws credibility from the pretense of having taken the Fourth Step — "Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves." But as The Smoking Gun shows, he has no intention of embracing Step Ten — "Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it."

"Lying became part of my life," Frey wrote in at least one truthful moment. "I lied if I needed to lie to get something or get out of something."

Somewhere along the way, he no doubt learned the technique of disclosing unflattering personal details in order to gain enough credibility to continue lying. Cops, treatment professionals and many recovering addicts are adept at seeing through such manipulation. The rest of us are more gullible... and hopeful.

For some readers, his lies may only add up to entertainment — what in our popular culture isn't lies? But to others who were deluded or given false hope by Frey's "I did it my way" tale, the author might consider making amends before he turns himself over full-time to writing fiction.

Polygamy, Pederasty and Group Marriage

Charles H. Darrell of the Minnesota for Marriage/Minnesota Family Council forgot to include bestiality in his litany of legalized horrors that will some day be thrust upon America's families should any form of civil union or marriage be approved for other than heterosexuals.

He writes:

The reality is that a civil union is just marriage by another name; and leaving the "marriage business" and getting into the "civil partnerships business" is just a bait-and-switch scheme designed to force one form of morality upon another. The only business the state should "get into" is representing the will of the people by allowing them to vote on the definition of marriage.

In the spirit of a kinder, gentler ATGD, I am not reflexively rejecting Mr. Darrell's position. In fact, I will heartily agree with him that it is wrong to force one form of morality upon another. As he ably illustrates, the real heart of the divide is that Americans can't vote on definitions.

What we have here is a failure to define our terms.

My "tolerate" is his "force upon." His "morality" is my "force upon." You see why we need a vote to settle this.

I don't think we should stop at voting on the definition of marriage. After all, as I'm sure Darrell would agree, public voting on definitions is a slippery slope, and soon we will be expected to vote on other terms. I know our governor in Minnesota would like to clear up once and for all that a fee is not a tax. Let's vote on it!

Zygote or human being? Insurgent or terrorist? Evolution or intelligent design? Torture or interrogation? Lobbying or bribe? Self-defense or nation-building? Legal monitoring or illegal eavesdropping? Compliment or sexual harrassment? We want the people's definitions and we want them now.

So let's try to get the entire list out of the way at once.

That way citizens can prepare for the quiz all year. We can drill on a list of definitions, like kids studying for a spelling bee.

There will be a few details to work out. Will definitions get an up or down vote? If so, who gets to put forward the definition? And if a definition is rejected, what will we do next? Or, will the test be multiple choice with the definition getting the most votes prevailing?

Never mind, let's just hate each other.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Other Side of the Coin

Of course, there is another side to the tales of wealthy expenditures. There is always another side.

The rich in my last post were creating jobs, not slathering extravagances upon themselves. They were providing gainful employment for private pilots and upscale retail clerks and brochure writers and chauffers and woodwork varnishers and manufacturers of embossing equipment who might otherwise have been thrown back upon the mercies of the taxpayer.

But not all rich people feel they must first spend money on themselves in order to benefit others.

For some, true wealth is measured by how much you give away, not how much you accumulate.

Some know this all along. Kevin Garnett is building 24 homes in 24 months for poor families. Some, like Bill Gates using his wealth to help eradicate childhood diseases, figure it out in midlife. And others must first verify they truly can't take it with them before endowing museums or building hospital wings.

Minnesota has been blessed with generations of generous families and individuals. But these do not seem to be the families and the values shaping policy in the state or the nation these days.

Rich Company

The story about the gated community within the gated community set me thinking. I am fortunate to be wealthier than 99+ percent of the people who have ever lived, and yet I keep getting these reminders that I don't know anything about truly rich company.

The celebrity profiles, big numbers (Bill Gates, $51 billion net worth) and statistics (the net worth of the Forbes 400 climbed $125 billion, to $1.13 trillion last year) don't properly convey how the rich are very different from you and me.

It's the small details of wealth that bring it home to me. Like the way a former girl friend described the lifestyle in her circle back in Texas. You all hopped in daddy's plane for a shopping trip to Dallas, then returned for dinner to find a place set with a pack of your brand of cigarettes and matches embossed with your name.

Or the man who told of an AA meeting he attended in LA where the chauffers came in first and put business cards on the chairs to reserve seats for their bosses.

Another friend noted his business once bid on varnishing the wood in a closet for a super-rich household. Not to build the closet or install the fixtures — just to finish the surface. The bid: $100,000. The closet: 4,000 square feet.

I once interviewed a writer who showed me a sample of a beautiful brochure describing a luxury yacht. ("Brochure" understates the opulence of the photography, paper and printing. And "yacht" makes it sound like a boat. Think instead floating Park Avenue mansion.)

Were they renting it out, I asked? No, this was for guests, so they could appreciate ahead of time where they were going. And, presumably, to realize they could leave their foul weather slickers at home.

My comfortable life is as far from them as a mildewed trailer park is from me. To a family in Darfur, the trailer might be a palace.

And to a Congressman in America, it's still time to stimulate the economy by cutting taxes on the rich and programs for the poor.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Why Domestic Surveillance Matters

I'm near completion of Mao: The Unknown Story, which describes his incessant quest for power — not just for political control, but domination of every human being he encountered. Although he fell far short of his dream of leading the Communist bloc and eventually the world, Mao was very likely the most complete monster of the century that gave us Hitler and Stalin.

And given the size of the population under his control, there's a strong case he was the worst tyrant who ever lived.

He thoroughly and cynically betrayed family, subordinates, allies and supporters; sent his own troops to needless deaths, starved many millions, countenanced the torture and killing of many millions more; squandered his nation's culture and its resources; pretended to be a great military leader but was a terrible coward and incompetent tactician; pretended to be a humble revolutionary but lived a life of opulence, self-aggrandizement and licentiousness.

Nevertheless, he was a master manipulator and brilliant exploiter of human weakness. Because he possessed no scruples, he could take both sides of an issue or no side at all, whatever suited his immediate purpose.

After 600 pages of Mao, George W. Bush doesn't look so bad at all.

Still, it's worth referring back to an earlier post made before revelations surfaced about NSA surveillance of domestic calls. Mao understood that one key to controlling the population was dampening the ability to have private conversations or express private thoughts. His methods were crude and brutish, but they worked. He nearly succeeded in stamping out independent thought in the world's largest country.

Surveillance and data mining technologies may seem less intimidating than public indoctrination, interrogations, forced confessions, torture at mass rallies and ubiquitous informants. But the ability to mine our phone calls, keystrokes, emails and credit card transactions may ultimately be even more intrusive and powerful. In the hands of unscrupulous leaders who also control the courts, these tools become very real threats to freedom.

I don't believe the President and our government have any such designs in mind. But then, millions of Chinese once believed Mao was their liberator.

Commander-in-Chief-Without-End, Amen

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's, explains why our concern about the Bush presidency ought never to be just about Iraq, torture or any other single issue:

For these cultists [Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, David Addington, et al] of an all-powerful presidency, the holy war, the "crusade" to be embarked upon was, above all, aimed at creating a President accountable to no one, overseen by no one, and restricted by no other force or power in his will to act as he saw fit. And so, in this White House, all roads have led back to one issue: How to press ever harder at the weakening boundaries of presidential power. This is why, when critics concentrate on any specific issue or set of administration acts, no matter how egregious or significant, they invariably miss the point. The issue, it turns out, is never primarily — to take just two areas of potentially illegal administration activity — torture or warrantless surveillance. Though each of them had value and importance to top administration officials, they were nonetheless primarily the means to an end.

This is why the announcement of (and definition of) the "global war on terror" almost immediately after the 9/11 attacks was so important. It was to be a "war" without end. No one ever attempted to define what "victory" might actually consist of, though we were assured that the war itself would, like the Cold War, last generations. Even the recent sudden presidential announcement that we will now settle only for "complete victory" in Iraq is, in this context, a distinctly limited goal because Iraq has already been defined as but a single "theater" (though a "central" one) in a larger war on terror. A war without end, of course, left the President as a commander-in-chief-without-end and it was in such a guise that the acolytes of that "obscure philosophy" of total presidential power planned to claim their "inherent" constitutional right to do essentially anything. (Imagine what might have happened if their invasion of Iraq had been a success!)

Monday, January 02, 2006


Okay, I don't watch much television and I have my own obsessions, so when this image appeared in a pop-up ad served with my online NYT, maybe it was natural I didn't see Monk first.

Did you?

Plantation America

The U.S. Census Service's 2003 American Housing Survey found that 3 million out of 72 million owner-occupied homes in the country were in gated communities.
Honolulu Advertiser

I met a couple last week. Like many Americans, they seem not to be from anywhere. When you ask them, they say, we live in a gated community called (supply pretentious name here). These people don't want to talk about their roots. They gate-drop.

Four percent of home owners live in gated communities — not counting resorts or Kennebunkports and Crawfords with their own gates or condos with doormen — and roughly 98 percent of these presumably privacy-seeking folks seem to want you to know it.

Nearly 30 years ago, a planned community was built in these parts with a guard house and drop arm. This being Minnesota, the introduction was seen as a lack of neighborliness piled atop pretense, and soon, the guard and the gate went. But the guard house and the reputation stayed. A few years ago, a new development sprang up nearby our place. Nice brick gate house, but no attendant or gate. I'm not sure if the faux gate counts in the growing 3 million, but it certainly counts for status, without the labor costs and inconvenience.

Of course, once the floodgates of the gate-without-guard approach opened, something had to be done to stop devaluation of the gated concept.

Recently, I had a conversation with a college professor who is a member of a singing group in Florida. Over the holidays, they were hired to do caroling at a home located in a gated community within a gated community.

This phenomenon had so far escaped me, since in our social circle, holiday entertaining doesn't even require matching place mats. If you need verification that gate-within-gate is a trend, check out here and here.

Surely there hasn't been a big gated community crime wave forcing frightened millionaires ever deeper into fortresses of 19th Century solitude. More likely it's become necessary to better discriminate the driving from the driven, the Beemers from the Bentleys.

Of course, it's not actually called segregation in the marketing of developments like Waterford:

Yet Waterford will remain exclusive. Marketing research indicated that some people want the very private, spacious waterfront land for larger custom homes. Waterford's building guidelines allow for homes to reach a maximum of 13,000 square feet with separate carriage houses of up to 5,000 square feet.

"Waterford is going to be high-end all the way around," Elder said.

The architectural theme of Waterford is "Southern American Plantation" and can include Colonial or Greek revival types of homes.

Whatever is responsible for this uber-seclusion, I'm pretty sure it's not embarrassment.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Horse Manure

Recently I met a man from out west who shows Arabian horses for very wealthy clients. (Think Westminster Dog Shows with hooves, held at Scottsdale and other upscale locales around the world.) The horses are typically flown to the venues, and ensuring their safety is an important part of his job. His stable also raises, trains, buys and sells the horses for his clients.

All of his clients, he said, engage in the business as a tax write-off.

For some idea of how the dodge works, you can read here.

The International Arabian Horse Association, you may remember, was the prior employer of FEMA director Mike Brown.

So nice to know about yet another way reducing taxes on the rich is creating jobs.